The Skills Gap That's Slowing Down Your Career

Harvard Business Review

Career speed bumps (much like their counterparts in the road) can take you by surprise. If you don't slow down to navigate and learn from them, they can trip you up again and again. Take not having the right credentials, one common career speed bump. It's easy to ignore if you are speeding along in your career with the same employer, but suddenly losing your job can send you careening out of control.

For example, I know a bank executive who had twenty years of great community banking experience, but no bachelor's degree. When his institution was bought out, no other bank would even consider him for a job. The same can be true if you are in an engineering job without the right credentials, or a senior finance job without an MBA or an advanced degree in finance. In fact, in recent years all careers have seen an escalation in the credentials needed to succeed. Recent college grads are having trouble because they don't have the technical or functional skills necessary for what used to be entry-level jobs. The likes of New York Times' Thomas Friedman and Richard Pérez-Peña agree that trend is only going to continue.

People tend to give the same excuses for not keeping their skills up to date: "I have the experience." "I just didn't have the time to get an MBA." But excuses like those don't matter in tight job markets where there are plenty of people out there looking for jobs — and with the right credentials for those jobs.

If your speed bump is a lack of the right skills, it helps to first do a quick cost/benefit analysis to see if investing in an upgrade will be worth it. If you are within five years of retirement, it may not make sense. But if you plan on being in the job market for ten or more years, you should consider making the investment.

You don't have to invest in a lengthy degree program to stay competitive. There are alternatives, such as professional certificates, which offer programs on anything from 3D Animation to Zoo keeping. If you are in IT, for example, certifications like those found on the Ten Best IT Certifications can really improve your resume. If you are in Human Resources, you can improve your technical skills with the PHR and SPHR certifications offered by the Society for Human Resource Management. If you are looking to improve your management skills but can't swing an MBA, there are certificate programs at many colleges and universities across the country.

If you are looking for a degree instead of the certifications, you can always get some course credit from the work experience you have. In fact, at some colleges and universities, it is possible to combine past academic work and job experience with online or in-person courses to get the degree you need. One long-standing program like this is at Cambridge College in Massachusetts that has regional centers around the US. And once you start to look, you will find lots of many similar programs online. A word of advice: Before you sign up for an online degree, do your research. People seeking these "life experience" degrees are prime targets for scammers.

Another tip that many people don't realize is that you don't have to wait until you have your credentials to put them on your resume. If you are enrolled in a program, show it. For example: "Somewhere University, MBA, expected June, 2014" is perfectly acceptable, and absolutely counts with hiring managers.

My friend the banker put together the credentials to get his degree, and with only expected degree on his resume, got an executive position in a community bank. Now with his degree in hand, he is CEO.

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